Tuesday, 15 February 2011 19:21 Sebastian Strangio and Cheang Sokha
A United Nations refugee centre in Cambodia that housed Vietnamese Montagnards was closed down today, prompting fears from rights groups about the fate of future Montagnard asylum seekers.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong confirmed today that the Sen Sok district site would be closed according to the government’s schedule.
“As I have said, the temporary camp would be closed by the 15th.
Today is the deadline of the closing down,” he said.
The closure of the site, ordered by the ministry in November, signals the end of a 2005 agreement between Cambodia, Vietnam and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees governing the processing of Montagnard asylum seekers.
Since the passage of a December 2009 sub-decree, all other asylum requests have been processed by the Cambodian Refugee Office under the Ministry of Interior.
In a statement issued on Monday, Human Rights Watch stated that continuing persecution of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam made it “imperative” that Cambodia continues to guarantee their right to seek asylum.
The Kingdom is one of only two countries in Southeast Asia to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention.
“Cambodia has a clear obligation to ensure that future Montagnard asylum seekers are permitted to enter a refugee screening process that is fair and based on international standards,” HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in the statement.
“Closing the Montagnard refugee centre doesn’t change those obligations.”
In its statement, HRW expressed concerns the refugee sub-decree, which was passed just days before the government forcibly deported 20 ethnic Uighurs to China, failed to protect the rights of asylum seekers.
The group stated that the sub-decree “provides Cambodian authorities great leeway to reject and expel asylum seekers, with insufficient procedural protections in place to prevent unlawful forced returns”.
Mom Sophannarith, the head of the refugee office, said the government would handle future Montagnards cases alone.
“We set up our own refugee office in 2008, so the government will examine the status of those people,” he said, adding that it would not discriminate on any basis.
“We don’t care whether they are Montagnard or not, we do not discriminate against any nationalities,” he said.
Koy Kuong added that in future cases, the government would implement both the refugee sub-decree and its immigration laws. Immigration rules would be given precedence, he added.
Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services, said the closure of the site marked the “end of an era”, but added that members of “any group” should continue to have the right to seek asylum in Cambodia.
UNHCR officials said on Monday that 50 registered refugees from the site have already departed the country, while 10 who are eligible to emigrate will be housed temporarily pending their departure.
A further 10 will be returned to Vietnam at an undetermined date after having their asylum claims rejected.